Monday, October 25, 2010

Poetry for kids or Why everyone should read Shel Silverstein

When my boys were much younger we belonged to a neighborhood playgroup. The kids ranged in age from newborn to kindergarteners. At Christmas we had a book exchange. Everyone brought an anonymous wrapped book and put it either into the "infant/board book" category or in the "older kid" category. I debated the best present to get. After all, I could go to the Dollar store and get a board book but I know I wouldn't have wanted that as a present. I finally found the perfect book:

a 30th Anniversary Edition of Where the Sidewalk Ends

Although a three year old might not dig Shel Silverstein I figured it was a long-term present. I was vastly relieved when the mom who picked my book had a 5 year old. She was the perfect age for the book. Imagine my surprise when the mom opened the book and nearly burst into tears. She announced to the room, "Who would buy an adult book for a child?" in a snide, disappointed voice. I wanted nothing more than to crawl out of the room. This woman obviously had no idea who Shel Silverstein was.

So I am posting here for anyone who doesn't know Shel Silverstein. His work is amazing. And more than anything it is poetry that should be read aloud (as should all poetry, in my opinion).

Lately my boys are getting into reading longer books on their own. But interestingly, they have no desire to move even further up the reading scale and have me read them longer books. While their friends are starting to listen to Harry Potter or The Chronicles of Narnia Eldest and Boy2 still prefer if I read them picture books. Last week Eldest picked up Where the Sidewalk Ends (I bought my own copy at the same time I bought the gift. It has remained on the shelf for a number of years) and they are hooked. Every night they ask for more poems. Both boys want me to read the same book - which is a small miracle of its own.

The cadence of poetry begs to be read aloud. The silly themes in Silverstein's work appeals to kids of all ages. In school over 50% of my classmates chose to memorize Sarah Cynthia Silvia Stout when we had to recite a poem (while I proudly stood and read Robert Frost's The Mending Wall). Yet as an adult I find I am enjoying the books on a whole different level. Silverstein thrives on the acceptability of difference. For any child who has ever felt awkward or like they didn't fit in, there is a Shel Silverstein poem that will speak to him or her.

A couple of months ago I picked out The Giving Tree and read it to Boy2 who listened appreciatively. At bedtime he asked me to read it again. The next day Eldest grabbed it from his brother's room but never said anything about it. When it came time to return the book to the library I asked if he had read it. His comment, "I didn't think I'd like it from looking at the pictures. But, it was actually really good." I would call that high praise from a 7 year old.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Dear Deer: A Book of Homophones by Gene Barretta

I picked up this book at the school Book Fair in the spring because I liked the bright colors and the cartoony art. It turns out to have been a fun find for both boys. The story is a goofy, cute picture book. But you can read it to kids, and have them read it themselves at many different levels.

The point of the book is to introduce kids to homophones: words that sound alike but have two different meanings (and sometimes spellings).

Each page has a series of two or three homophones. All together the book tells the story of life in a zoo. The pages include things like

I now live at the zoo. Wait until you HEAR what goes on over HERE.

The homophones are always in capital letters. Through the book they do get more difficult. The first time I read it the boys just listened to the story. By the second time they had started to pick up on the words and the differing meanings. Now if I read it they jump up and down and fight for the chance to explain what the story means and to explain the difference in the definitions between the homophones. It is hysterical watching them try to act out "here" versus "hear."

I have noticed a growing trend lately of "grammar" and "math" picture books. I am of a mixed mind on these. On the one hand, like Dear Deer, they are a good way to introduce kids to difficult concepts. Both of my boys have enjoyed math story books we have found. On the other hand, we cram so much academic at our kids that sometimes a story should just be a story.

A couple of examples
Eats, Shoots, & Leaves (the children's edition)

Anyone else have thoughts on this growing children's sub-genre?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Benny and Penny Series by Geoffrey Hayes

**A special thanks to The Reading Tub for asking me to be part of her A Carnival for New Readers for the month of October**

A good librarian is worth her weight in gold. Much of my childhood was spent browsing the shelves of our library with the librarian standing over my shoulder offering recommendations. Last week I stopped in our library and asked for suggestions for my budding readers. She could not have been more helpful!! I went home with half a dozen books, most of which got read in the first couple of nights.

I find it is difficult for emerging readers to suddenly jump into the world of black text, white page, one picture on every other page. So much of reading up until that point has been visual that the change can seem stark. But finding good books which bridge the gap can be something of a challenge (although I will admit that more and more authors are seeing and filling this literacy gap). While I have a long-standing distrust, shall we say, of graphic novels as something less than "real literature," I am beginning to recognize their appeal to new readers. After all, I didn't spent every evening as a child reading Dickens. I read my fair share of Archie and Richie Rich comic books.

Moreover, emerging readers have the challenge of fitting their reading level into their interest level. As Eldest struggled to read he didn't want books with pictures of babies and words like "dolly" and "ball;" he wanted Star Wars and NFL Football. Boy2 is the opposite. His reading ability his high for his age, but he still prefers Blues Clues and doesn't want stories about zombies or space aliens.

Benny and Penny fit perfectly into Boy2's needs. The characters are a brother and sister mouse who go on adventures and get into typical little kid trouble. One of the realities of graphic novels is that many of them are geared to an older reader. Benny and Penny is blissfully innocent. There is nothing scary. There are no creatures lurking in the dark. There are no themes of good vs. evil. They are simple stories.

Boy2 read the 32 page story at bedtime the evening I brought it home. The next evening he requested that we read it together - he played the role of Benny, I got to be Penny. Listening to him read and include the enthusiasm and expressionism of the story was magical. He was so excited.

Yesterday I was back at the library browsing the shelves for more Benny and Penny stories. Sadly, they were all checked out. Obviously my son is not the only fan. We will be keeping our eyes out for these books.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Geronimo and Thea Stilton Series

Finding a series which is appealing to both boys and girls can be challenging these days. In a world which touts gender-neutral toys, chapter books do not follow the rules. So many of the plots are extremely gendered. Walking through the bookstore you can find pastel colored spines with titles about fairies, girlfriends, and jewelry. Or you can find dark colored spines and titles with "gross," adventure, or daring in them. There is little to appeal to kids who don't fit the mold.

Enter the Geronimo and Thea Stilton series. Even here they have divided the books into two categories - Geronimo for the boys and the Thea Sisters for the girls. But they remain significantly less gendered than what else I have found. The stories are action/adventure. In each one Thea or Geronimo - employees of their family's newspaper business - track down missing people, find treasure, or explore scary houses.

As much as my boys enjoy the plots - and for those who are leery of too much tension, these have not bothered Boy2 who tends to be very sensitive to scary things - the best BEST part of the Stilton books is the actual text.

As I have said, my boys are visual. They like the pictures. So a page with all black and white text still seems a bit too boring. But the creators of this series had a great idea. The font is far from standard. According to The Geronimo Stilton News Site they use "nontraditional fonts and colors" as part of "Visual Literacy." Whatever phrase they use to describe it: it works for my kids! In a big way! They love to see the words played out on the page.

If I could find more series like this I would snatch them up in a heartbeat. Right now it is the only thing Boy2 is reading. He even approached the school librarian and asked for a harder book than what she had put out for the kindergarteners. He mentioned Thea Stilton and read a page to her before she would let him take it out to prove he could read it.

From their site I just learned Geronimo Stilton is a translated Italian series. The Italians are doing it right. For early literacy I love love love this series!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Bad Kitty by Nick Bruel

Both of my boys are very visual. They have always loved reading picture books at bedtime. About a year ago when I attempted to read a chapter book to them Eldest declared, "I don't like chapter books because I can't see the pictures in my head." So we stuck with picture books. Even as they are reading more on their own recently, they still prefer picture books to chapter books at bedtime.

I realized for kids who like the depth of picture book stories, like Eloise, easy readers are overly simplistic. While the idea of reading their own books is important, both of my boys wanted to move from picture books to detailed stories.

All of that to say, we love the Bad Kitty series in my house. The original Bad Kitty is cute and funny. Both boys laughed and asked us to read it again and again. The pictures are amusing and well done. In addition, it is also a more advanced alphabet book incorporating words a child would not be expected to know but can easily learn. After reading Bad Kitty, we immediately moved on to Poor Puppy.

Nick Bruel made a great choice in expanding the picture book into an easy chapter book series. The same humor is apparent in the stories. They are funny for kids but equally funny for the adults reading. The great pictures (although in black and white rather than color) run throughout the book which means for Eldest he can hear the story and still be invested in what's on the page. In addition, there is enough text to tell a whole story. I started reading Bad Kitty Gets a Bath the other night and after I left Boy2 finished reading the story on his own. We have not yet read Happy Birthday Bad Kitty but I foresee it in the near future.

If you can think of other series like Nick Bruel's which bridge the gap between graphic picture books and graphic chapter books, please share. We're always looking for more like it.

Friday, October 1, 2010

October is Children's Book month - at least for me :-)

I am going to take a break for the month from blogging about the books I am reading. I may hang onto the titles so I can post them later. But for this month I will turn my focus to children's literature. Both of my boys: Eldest and Boy2 have recently made the jump from Easy Readers to Chapter books. It is not an easy transition and some days are more successful than others. But it is fascinating to watch their interests and their abilities change every day.

There are so many good books for kids these days that I am gratified by what I can find. Not everything they read is "literature." Far from it. But they are reading and that's what is important. There is always room for improvement too. If there is one great book, how can I find more like it?

I try not to be an overbearing parent. I did not spend hours showing my kids Mozart flashcards at the age of two. But I will admit that I have pushed reading on them. As you probably noticed from my blog, I LOVE to read. Books are as necessary to me as food. I wanted to pass that love onto my children. But equally important is the necessity to read to be successful in school. Whether Math, Science, Social Studies the ability to read and comprehend instructions and texts are crucial. So I felt like early reading would make the transition to school easier.

It has, but now I have kids reading above their grade level which presents its own challenges.

Anyway, that's enough from me. Now on to the books: